Judicial findings based on sealed cover documents of probe agencies against fair trial: SC

New Delhi, Dec 4 (PTI) The Supreme Court on Wednesday deprecated probe agencies' practice of submitting documents in sealed covers to the court and said recording of judicial findings based on such material would be against the 'concept of fair trial'.

The top court's observation came in its verdict granting bail to senior Congress leader P Chidambaram in the INX Media money laundering case in which the Enforcement Directorate (ED) had submitted alleged incriminating documents in a sealed cover for perusal of the judges.

A bench headed by Justice R Banumathi said it was not justified for the Delhi High Court to record the findings in its November 15 verdict denying bail to Chidambaram based on the material submitted in sealed cover by the ED.

'Hence in our opinion, the finding recorded by the Judge of the High Court based on the material in sealed cover is not justified,' it said.

The bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, set aside the high court order and granted bail to the 74-year-old former finance minister, who has been in custody for 105 days.

'...though it is held that it would be open for the Court to peruse the documents, it would be against the concept of fair trial if in every case the prosecution presents documents in sealed cover and the findings on the same are recorded as if the offence is committed and the same is treated as having a bearing for denial or grant of bail,' the bench said.

The top court said though it was not very much inclined to open the sealed cover documents submitted by the ED while opposing the bail in the case, the High Court in its verdict had recorded its findings based on such material and thus it had become imperative for the court to peruse it.

'We were not very much inclined to open the sealed cover although the materials in sealed cover was received from the respondent. However, since the Single Judge of the High Court had perused the documents in sealed cover and arrived at certain conclusion and since that order is under challenge, it had become imperative for us to also open the sealed cover and peruse the contents so as to satisfy ourselves to that extent,' the bench said.

During the hearing of bail plea, senior advocates Kapil Sibal and A M Singhvi, appearing for Chidambaram, had vehemently opposed placing on record the documents in sealed cover by the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the ED.

It said that in the present case the High Court while adverting to the materials in the November 15 verdict, ought not have recorded a finding based on the materials produced before him.

'While the judge was empowered to look at the materials produced in a sealed cover to satisfy his judicial conscience, the Judge ought not to have recorded finding based on the materials produced in a sealed cover,' it said.

Dealing with the sealed cover document and the question to whether the court could look into the documents, the top court referred to the verdict of September 5, in which it had rejected the anticipatory bail plea of Chidambaram in the INX media money laundering case.

'...this Court had held that it would be open for the Court to receive the materials/documents collected during the investigation and peruse the same to satisfy its conscience that the investigation is proceeding in the right lines and for the purpose of consideration of grant of bail/anticipatory bail etc,' the bench said, adding that it was also disapproved the manner in which the High Court had 'verbatim quoted' a note produced by the ED.

The top court said that on perusal of the documents submitted by the ED in sealed cover it has taken note that the statements of persons concerned in the case have been recorded and the details collected have been collated.

'The recording of statements and the collation of material is in the nature of allegation against one of the co-accused Karti Chidambaram -- son of appellant (P Chidambaram) -- of opening shell companies and also purchasing benami properties in the name of relatives at various places in different countries,' it said, while refraining from disclosing more about the documents submitted in sealed cover.

It said that these are the allegations which would have to be established in the trial wherein the accused/ co-accused would have the opportunity of putting forth their case, if any, and an ultimate conclusion would be reached. Chidambaram has been in custody since August 21 when he was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in INX Media corruption case.

On October 16, the ED arrested him in the separate money-laundering case.

Six days later, on October 22, the apex court had granted him bail in the case lodged by the CBI.

CBI had registered its case on May 15, 2017, alleging irregularities in a Foreign Investment Promotion Board clearance granted to INX Media group for receiving overseas funds of Rs 305 crore in 2007 during Chidambaram's tenure as finance minister.

Thereafter, ED had lodged a money laundering case. PTI MNL ABA SA